Joe Johnson has been relatively quiet in the last few games, but he may be saving his best performances for the playoffs. On the same note Amar'e Stoudemire has gradually ramped up his contribution as the Miami Heat approach the second season. Jason Lieser reports that Gerald Green is working like crazy because "at the end of the day, I came here to win."
The thrashing at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs served as a reality check that, if the season ended today, the Heat would be blown out by the Spurs again. Luckily the Heat have eleven games left in the regular season to elevate their game to a championship level.
Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson are looking past rookie-of-the-year honors to a more meaningful trophy: the Larry O'Brien one. Anthony Davis may get millions if he is selected to an All-Star team, but being on those teams is a hollow accomplishment compared to going mano-a-mano in games that matter and survive as the only ones on top.
Of the four rookie ladders at nba.com, USAtoday, hoopshabit, cbssports, three include both Winslow and Richardson. In two of them, Richardson ranks higher than Winslow. Heat beat writer Ethan Skolnick says they are "among the best rookie values."
Winslow would join a rare group of rookies to go from a NCAA to NBA championship in the next year. He already has demonstrated his relentless pursuit of excellence, but this time success demands a much higher level of play.
Even if Dwyane Wade is past his 2006, 2012 and 2013 prime years, he is still a proven champion. Johnson and Stoudemire have tasted the bitter fruits of defeat in their previous playoff appearances. I look for them to elevate their games in an attempt for one last try at a NBA crown.
RealBet has the Heat as long shots for titles in the Eastern Conference, +1200, and NBA, +4000, crowns. The site has nine other teams with better odds to win 16 games. If the Spurs game is any indication, a NBA title is truly a pipe dream for the Heat, where everything has to go right for them.
During the second season, the Heat do not have to be better than 15 other qualifiers, but only the four they would face if they reach the NBA Finals. The process is a simple rinse and repeat: win one game and repeat that single victory 16 times with the same intensity.
The motivation is to prove doubters were wrong about the team - can the combination of battle-tested veterans and the young mob bring that chip on their shoulder to every contest? The only hope for Miami would be if the top-tier teams peak before the second season begins.
Dark horses such as the Kansas City Royals and Denver Broncos didn't have the best regular season records going into the playoffs, but gained belief in themselves that the others were not any better as the postseason series wore on, and managed to upset the favorites to back up their faith in their own abilities.
Starting with tonight's game in Miami, every game won is one step closer to the Heat's date with destiny in June. Looking at each game as a stepping stone to their eventual goal of ending the season on top, the Heat can prove to skeptics that even the loss of Chris Bosh could not stop them.
Coincidentally the Sioux Falls Skyforce will be in Delaware for a chance to tie the NBA D-League record of 38 wins in a season, with a possibility to be the only D-League team to win 40 games in a season. They are chasing history also.
There aren't any shortcuts to the process. The optimistic view is the Heat might be reaching their best levels of play at the same time other teams are past their prime performances of this season.
One possession at a time, one game at a time: eventually a title can be won. The Broncos weren't supposed to win it all either, but prevailed with their suffocating defensive identity when it mattered the most.